Winter Returnees

Oct. 30/12 - Now that the fall migration has unceremoniously by-passed me, it's time to look forward to the return of our fall residents. An unexpected book delivery to Coho Books in Campbell River on Oct. 27 gave me the opportunity check a few waterfront sites with a modicum of satisfaction. Many of my winter favorites have yet to appear, but they can't off. In particular, I was hoping for the Black Scoters in Qualicum and the Long-taileds at Deep Bay. Neither materialized, but I wasn't disappointed as I knew it was still early. In the past I have seen these two species in the last week of Oct., but that was more the exception than the rule. Other MIA's were Barrow and Common Goldeneyes, Greater and Lesser Scaups, and Red-breasted Mergansers. On the plus side of the ledger, I did see my first Bufflehead and Eurasian Wigeon the day before at Fairwinds, and it was comforting to see the usual gang of Harlequins, Black Turnstones, and Black Oystercatchers decorating the rock-tops during high tide at Qualicum. There were also a lot of other familiar feathers on the way including the throng of Cormorant Walmart greeters in South Campbell River.

Meanwhile, the folks down Victoria way have been enjoying a few interesting birds. A few weeks ago they were entertained by a sweet Blue Gray Gnatcatcher at Swan Lake, and that was followed by a handsome Harris's Sparrow at Panama Flats and seven Tundra Swans at Viaduct Flats. As well, there was a brief sighting of an American Redstart, and there have been a number of White-throated Sparrows. It was tempting to do the twitches, but it has been difficult to find any decent weather on the days I wasn't otherwise preoccupied - just another facet of Murphy's Law.

In anticipation of a quiet winter for photography I've decided to accept a few extra bookings for presentations which is ironic because I just confided to a friend that I was cutting back or even phasing out my presentations. Right, make up your mind , Mike. Anyway, it's always difficult to say NO when it's another opportunity to spread the bird word. I actually did my first presentation today to the Parksville Rotary Club. They were an appreciative audience with a lot of interesting questions afterwards.

My schedule for the next month includes the SECHELT NATURAL HISTORY SOCIETY on Nov. 2, the COMOX VALLEY NEWCOMERS on Nov. 5, ECOLE MILL BAY in mid-Nov., FANNY BAY CRAFT FAIR on Nov. 17 & 18, and QUALICUM VILLAGE ARTS FAIRE on Nov. 23, 24, 25. As well, I already have two presentations and one show for 2013. Maybe I'll phase out after these events.

One of my opening comments today was that I never get tired of seeing the Bald Eagles even though I see them almost every day. That's true for all the birds I see, and it'll be true for regulars like the Common Merganser on the water for the rest of the fall and winter. My first photo op of the day was past the Shady Rest in Qualicum. A gang of Common Mergansers were cruising officiously like a vigilante possee along the shoreline heading south. By the time I parked and grabbed the camera, they were already past me so I had to turn around and pull into the parking lot at the Shady and wait. I would have loved to be down at sea level, but there was nowhere to hide on the beach. Anyway, documentation is my game, not perfection.

The sun was playing hide 'n seek, and I was lucky to have the seek as I arrived at the viewing stand. I was also lucky to be greeted by about two dozen Black Oystercatchers. It's difficult to resist photographing them. They just have that lovable demeanor and character that screams, "Take my picture."

Of course, it helps that they are not camera shy, and unlike most birds, they are very cooperative.

Black Turnstones are also quite cooperative, but like Rodney Dangerfield, they just don't get the same respect as the oystercatchers. However, I usually give them equal billing to the oystercatchers just to show that I appreciate them.

The harlequin is a winter favorite. No doubt about it. Every book is judged by its cover and every bird is judged by its feathers. There's nothing wrong with that. We all have favorite people, favorite foods, favorite activities, etc. I guess that's positive discrimination, and so far, it's still politically correct. But, just think for a minute. It's still discrimination and by inference casting a negative perspective on the non-favorites. When the politically correct police catch on to that ...

The north end of Qualicum Beach is my favorite location to photograph Harlequins. Access is easy, the rocks make a great setting, and and the sun is usually at your back. And, if the Harlequins aren't around, chances are there will be a few consolation birds. On several occasions it was the Slaty-backed Gull.

Losing it ... It's sad to see the Common Loon losing its exquisite summer plumage, but it doesn't seem to mind.

The predictable sequence of events when the loon was doing its grooming had me ready to catch it sitting up and fanning its wings.

I think the fanning is a way of getting all the wing feathers back in the unruffled position.

Exceptional gastronomic feat - I'm always amazed to see a seabird or gull swallow a prey that is many times the width of their throats.

It's not as easy as it looks. The Pelagic Cormorant took more than a dozen efforts before it managed to manoeuver the fish down its throat. Like a few other seabirds, the cormorant used inertia to get the fish down its throat. First, the fish is grasped by the head. Then it is flipped up followed by an upward thrust of the cormorant's head and neck. The cormorant's neck is extremely elastic and stretches to accommodate the fish.

Like the Pelagic Cormorant above, the Common Loon also had a struggle with this flatfish.

The loon took well over a dozen tries at swallowing the fish, and it was still trying when I left. I didn't stay for more photos because the loon was going farther away with each effort which is consistent with behaviour that I have seen several times.

Patriotic bird - Before the loon incident, I spotted a distant Red-necked Grebe heading my way. At first I thought it was still in breeding plumage because it seemed to have a lot of red on it. When it was close enough to see properly through my lens, I chuckled as I saw the maple leaf on its chest. It kept coming closer, but before it was in range it dove. I waited for it to come up to see if it was still wearing the leaf. Unfortunately, when it surfaced, it was ambushed by a Glaucous-winged Gull and headed back the other way.

My next stop was Goose Spit where I saw some Surf Scoters diving for clams. I stopped beside the road close by the diving action, but I was thwarted by some pedestrians who walked aalong the the shore with their dogs. I didn't really mind since the sun was playing "hide" again so I journeyed on to Oyster Bay where it was quite birdy. A couple dozen Green-winged Teal flushed as I walked the trail to the breakwater. It was still high tide and the top of every rock on the breakwater was decorated with gulls and shorebirds. The shorebirds were the closest and there seemed to be a pecking order with the Black-bellied Plovers on top, the Black Turnstones in the middle, and the lowly Dunlin at the bottom.

There were also afew Dunlin foraging in the seaweed washed up by the waves. I know from experience that the seaweed is loaded with thousands of aquatic insects as well as other critters.

A half dozen Dunlin preferred to forage in the sand, and I don't know how they do it, but they are quite successful probing the sand for worms.

High tide at Campbell River is the best time to photograph the cormorants. This is one of the few places I know of where you can photograph them in a natural setting. Normally they are sitting on piles or the top of man-made breakwaters.

Sunflower treat - We always save a few volunteer sunflowers for the birds. When the seed was ready, the garden abuzz with birds enjoying the tasy seeds.

Redbreasted Nuthatches zipped back and forth as they plucked the seeds then flew away to their caching sites.

The Chestnut-backed Chickadees didn't seem to have any interest in caching seeds. They simply plucked the seeds, flew to a steady perch, and proceeded to eat the seed.

Two weeks ago I stopped by one of the ponds at Fairwinds to check out the ducks. At that time there were only a few American Wigeons and Mallards.

I'm looking forward to the next few weeks. The Black Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks should be back, and weather permitting, I hope to get out more often with the camera. Until then, GOOD BIRDING, and let me know when you find something interesting.